One of the hit films of 2014 has been The Grand Budapest Hotel, directed by Wes Anderson. The film is set in the years prior to and during WW2 and is based upon the work of Stefan Zweig; the most popular German language writer in Europe during the 1920’s and ’30’s. The script for The Grand Budapest Hotel is based upon two works by Zweig (Beware of Pity and The Post Office Girl) and is a satirical comedy that reflects the pacifist beliefs of the author. The hotel’s concierge Gustave H played by Ralph Fiennes, is said to embody the real life persona of Zweig; an urbane, sophisticated, aristocratic individual possessing a mastery of languages with a wide circle of powerful and influential friends. The success of The Grand Budapest Hotel has inspired renewed interest in the prodigious writing of Zweig.
Born in Austria in 1881 to wealthy Jewish parents, Zweig studied philosophy at the University of Vienna, graduating in 1904. Jewish themes are central to much of his work with a focus on the need to reject intolerance, authoritarianism and later, Nazism. Zweig remained a pacifist throughout his life; a persuasion that forced him to flee Austria at the height of his popularity in 1934 to escape the rising tide of Nazism. Zweig was a close friend of Sigmund Freud and the influence of this bond is evident throughout his writing. Many of his stories focus upon the deep complexities and contradictions of human relationships.
The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig brings together twenty two novellas; the format that principally underpinned his popularity throughout Europe. This collection contains some of his most notable works including Amok and Letter From An Unknown Woman. Zweig’s writing style is direct, pithy and highly visual. His ability to use vivid analogies and allegories to link the reader’s imagination to the many moral and ethical dilemmas faced by his characters is a trademark of his writing style. Some of the novellas are brief, while others extend to thirty or forty pages. The novella style favoured by Zweig was apparently evolved by default. His penchant to heavily cull early drafts resulted in many stories that could have been small novels in their original form, being reduced by a third or more to form novellas. As Zweig explained, ‘If I have mastered any kind of art, it is the art of leaving things out.’
Critics are polarised on the style used by Zweig with Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka in particular being highly dismissive. Others however are most supportive, describing his work as expressive. My criticism of Zweig’s style concerns his frequent desire to analyse relationships from so many perspectives that the reader is left frustrated by the mire of argument and explanation when the time appears appropriate to move the story forward. The complexity of moral and ethical issues deeply fascinates Zweig and he explores the intricacies of relationships to a depth rarely seen. This is particularly evident in Beware of Pity one of only two full length novels he wrote. The story dwells at great length on the relationship between the disabled daughter who is besotted with a naive, reluctant and confused army lieutenant. The story evolves around the themes of exploration of self, honour, obligation, courage, honesty, tolerance and commitment; powerful themes that are reinforced throughout by the philosophical insights of the author. Some examples of the provoking insights provided by Zweig include;
- ‘Only when we know that we mean something to other people do we feel that there is point and purpose in our own existence.’
- ‘. . . . . perceiving for the first time that any form of compulsion binds the real powers of the mind, and the true qualities of a human being come to light only when he is at ease.’
- ‘Unhappiness makes people vulnerable and constant suffering makes them unjust . . . .’
- ‘Nothing increases a young man’s self-assurance, nothing encourages the formation of his character as much as to find himself unexpectedly facing a task that he must perform entirely on his own.’
- Mean minded natures never show themselves more resentful than when they see someone raised, as if on angel’s wings, above their own dreary situation in life.’
The reasons for Zweig’s wide popularity are immediately obvious. Through his exploration of relationships he provides a touchstone to the turbulent issues common to the lives of many people allowing them to readily identify with the crises faced by the various characters. The broad appeal of his novella format also reflects the comfort felt by Zweig in compressing ideas into a shorter form. The novellas are undoubtedly his strength, embracing as they do his ability to create the framework for the philosophical and psychological issues that so absorbed his writing and his life.
The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig and Beware of Pity are published by Pushkin Press, London.
All of his works are also available through Amazon on Kindle.